What is an Intermediary?
In the field of conflict resolution, intermediary and third party are interchangeable terms that refer to a person or group of people who enter a conflict in order “to help the disputing parties manage, analyze, or resolve their disputes.”1 Intermediaries can be informal or formal. Some third parties get drawn into the role by association or circumstance. For example, an informal intermediary could simply be a friend who is asked to mediate an interpersonal dispute between acquaintances. Formal intermediaries, on the other hand, are professionals hired specifically to perform the third party role.

Types of Formal Third Parties
There are several types of formal intermediaries who help resolve conflicts. They include facilitators, mediators, negotiators (sometimes lawyers), arbitrators, and judges.

Facilitators generally possess the least power to influence outcomes. Their job is to help establish effective communication between parties (see facilitation).They will set agendas for meetings between the parties, and control communication in those meetings to keep the parties on track and moving forward toward their goals. They can also help the parties determine or alter their goals, and assess whether a particular option or decision meets those goals. But the ultimate decisions are up to the parties themselves. Thus, facilitators have no authority over the final outcome of the decision process.2

Mediators tend to have more control over the resolution process than facilitators. They bring the parties together to help structure the process that will be used, and meet with the parties together and separately to sort out the key issues in dispute. The job of problem-solving mediators is to help parties develop mutually satisfactory solutions. (Facilitators rarely have such a distinct charge.) Transformative mediators, on the other hand, are more focused on strengthening relationships between parties (see problem-solving mediation and transformative mediation). Although mediators do not have authority over the outcome of the mediation process, they may identify and suggest potential solutions to the problem. They also serve an important role in terms of reframing the positions of the parties in ways that are more conducive to reaching agreement.3 Negotiation is a search for common ground that will result in a settlement between disputing parties (see negotiation and compromise).4 Everyone negotiates all the time — with one’s children, one’s associates, and one’s friends, about minor matters as well as large ones.

Lawyers, however, represent one type of formal negotiator when they are hired to negotiate for another party. Though lawyers are trained in adversarial procedures, namely litigation, they often become involved in negotiating settlements outside of the courtroom.5 In such a situation, it is not simply one person working between the parties as with mediation. Instead, there are at least two lawyers, one representing each side, negotiating with one another based on the interests of their clients.

Arbitrators are the most powerful formal intermediary. This is because they have the power to make a final, binding decision that usually cannot be appealed. In this sense, arbitrators are even more powerful than judges, as the latter’s decisions can be appealed.

Yet judges are still the most formal of intermediaries. This is primarily based on the rigidity and formality of the court system and its procedural protections, such as the guarantee of due process under the law. More information about the roles these intermediaries play can be found in the associated articles on negotiation, mediation, and arbitration of intractable conflicts.

by Brad Spangler
1 Heidi and Guy M. Burgess, Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1997), 148.
2 Roger M. Schwartz, The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994), 8.
3 For a thorough discussion of the role of mediators, see: Christopher W. Moore, The Mediation Process, 2nd Edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996).
4 For a thorough discussion of negotiation, see: Roy J. Lewicki, David M. Saunders, and John W. Minton, Negotiation, 3rd Edition (San Francisco: Irwin McGraw Hill, 1999).
5 D.K. Sampath, Negotiation and Settlement Advocacy, available from http://www.crinfo.org/documents/crci/1_Sampath1r.pdf

Brad Spangler is an Associate at Resolve in Washington, D.C. His primary area of interest is public policy dispute resolution. Brad Spangler is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.